Local veterans remember Iwo Jima battle 70 years later

Iwo Jima veteran Joe Hale brought back a Japanese sword.
Iwo Jima veteran Joe Hale brought back a Japanese sword. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Karl Appel first saw a dead Marine on Iwo Jima the morning after he arrived on the tiny island.

The dead soldier lay head down along the slope of a shell hole. Although half of his head had been blown off, one hand still clenched a cigarette.

“Funny things sort of go through your head,” said Appel, a fellow Marine. “I remember looking at his leggings and how neat they were laced, and I thought to myself, ‘When he laced those, he didn’t realize where he was going to end up.’ ”

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, a key showdown in the Pacific War that would provide dramatic fodder for books and Hollywood films. In 1945, 23,000 Japanese troops fought to defend the 8-mile island, which the U.S. military viewed as a valuable piece of land on which to build airfields, located about 750 miles from Tokyo. About 6,000 Marines — and 22,000 Japanese — died during the battle, remembered in the iconic photo of Marines raising a flag on top of Mount Suribachi.

6,000Americans killed in the Battle of Iwo Jima

22,000Japanese killed in the Battle of Iwo Jima

“We were listening to the news last night, and they were giving the casualties of the number of American soldiers that had been killed in the Iraqi fiasco,” said Joseph Hale, another fellow Iwo Jima veteran, of Atascadero, “and I was saying to my wife we lost more men in 36 days than they lost in 11 years.”

In 1944, World War II still raged in both Europe and the Pacific. After Americans captured the Marshall Islands, the Japanese sent reinforcements to Iwo Jima, where they built an elaborate network of underground tunnels and cave fortresses. Long before U.S. soldiers set foot on the island, in February 1945, Americans bombed it from the planes and ships.

“Our main directive was zeroing on Mount Hot Rock,” said Thomas Coryell, a 94-year-old Morro Bay man who served as a lieutenant gunnery officer on the USS Washington. “Mount Suribachi, which the Navy called Mount Hot Rock.”

His ship was 2 miles from shore, but “close enough so that when we were on deck we ran from one piece of steel to the other because they were pot-shotting us.”

Because the Japanese were so entrenched, the heavy artillery was less effective.

We were dug in on the beach, and a friend of mine said, ‘Hey, look — they’re raising the flag up there.’ And I said, ‘Oh, OK, great’ — and kept digging.

Joseph Hale, Iwo Jima veteran

“We did get a chance to go into several caves,” said Appel, 90, a Los Osos resident who returned to the island 50 years later, “and you can see when you go into those why our bombardments didn’t kill many because they were so deep and so well constructed.”

In February 1945, Marines were headed to the island for the next phase of the amphibious invasion.

“Seeing that full-blown amphibious landing, I always said, was like the greatest show on earth,” recalled Hale, 90.“Because you’ve got airplanes, you’ve got battleships, you’ve got cruisers, you’ve got rocket boats that would come close to shore and fire I don’t know how many rockets. And before we landed, the whole island — everybody fired at the beach, it seemed like, and it was just a sheet of dirt flying hundreds of feet in the air.”

“We did practice landings on the beach in Maui,” said Benedict Bellefeuille, 89, of Templeton. “Those sailors drove that thing right up and dropped the ramp on the sand, and we never got wet. We got to Iwo, and they dropped us off 50 yards (from shore) and said, ‘I’m not getting any closer — get out.’ And they were already in reverse.”

Unlike the Normandy invasion in Europe, where Allied forces were fired on even before they hit the beach, Marines who landed on Iwo Jima saw nothing but barren terrain and volcanic sand, the enemy nowhere to be seen.

“When it got daylight, there were no trees, there were no bunkers,” Hale said. “There were no people running around. I thought, ‘We’re going to be the laughing stock of the Pacific War because there’s nobody there.’ ”

A clue surfaced, Hale said, when an officer standing on the beach noticed the barrel of a rifle emerge from the ground between his feet.

“We didn’t know what to do so we just started piling sand on it,” Hale said.

Although Marines were surprised to land on the beach with little opposition, as a wire story published Feb. 19, 1945, in The Tribune (then called the Telegram-Tribune) noted, “it appeared they have one of the toughest and bitterest fights of the Pacific War on their hands.”

This island is a place where the Marines suffered more casualties than the Japanese. The big difference was that all of them were deceased.

Thomas Coryell, Iwo Jima veteran

Eventually gunfire did erupt from those tunnels and caves, the Japanese providing a formidable defense meant to inflict heavy casualties. For the local Marines who were on the island, horrific images of the battle have lodged in their minds, like stills from a nightmare.

Bellefeuille remembers watching as his platoon leader stepped into the line of machine gunfire. Hale recalls a Marine panicking after both of his hands had been blown off. And Appel remembers digging a hole as flares cast an eerie night light on two nearby dead Marines.

“The way the shadows moved made it look like they were moving,” Appel said. “It was a very eerie thing.”

Although Marines fought for a month, the famous photo of the flag being raised on Mount Suribachi took place Feb. 23, just five days after the Marines landed. Many believed the photo was staged, but it was not. (A victory photo after the flag was raised was posed.)

Feb. 19 to March 26, 1945The battle to secure Iwo Jima

“We were dug in on the beach, and a friend of mine said, ‘Hey, look — they’re raising the flag up there,’ ” Hale said. “And I said, ‘Oh, OK, great’ — and kept digging.”

As the flag was raised, Naval ships stopped bombing and blew their sirens, celebrating the capture of the monument, about the size of Morro Rock. Meanwhile, Joe Rosenthal, a photographer for The Associated Press, took photos while a Marine staff sergeant named Bill Genaust shot film with a 16 mm camera.

Although the photo would soon appear in newspapers nationwide — becoming a rallying call for the Allies — the Marines on Iwo Jima wouldn’t see the photo for another month. Bellefeuille was in a hospital when he first saw it, having suffered third-degree burns during a Japanese blast.

“I was sitting on a hill that turned out to be a cave, and they blew it up,” he said. “I was airborne 10 or 12 feet.”

He was one of more than 17,000 Americans wounded on the island.

“This island is a place where the Marines suffered more casualties than the Japanese,” said Coryell, the officer on the USS Washington. “The big difference was that all of them were deceased.”

The island was declared secured March 16, 1945.

While Rosenthal’s photo won a Pulitzer Prize and the battle inspired such films as “Sands of Iwo Jima” and “Flags of Our Fathers,” Hale said he thought about Iwo Jima less frequently as the years passed.

“After I got out of the service, there was a lot of publicity because of the flag raising,” he said. “When I was at work, people would come up and say, ‘I understand you were at Iwo Jima.’ ”

Hale said he’d answer a few questions, and the questioner would move on. But he couldn’t.

“I’d go home at night, and it was like a movie running at triple speed, the whole experience, and I’d be up all night long,” he said. “They’d ask you questions, and then they’d forget about it, but you can’t. That for me is why I avoided talking about it for a number of years.”

As years passed, though, he felt better talking about his experiences.

Whenever Appel sees the famous Iwo Jima flag-raising photo, he said, he thinks about what it took to get the flag on Suribachi and how it aided the American effort.

“And, of course, I think of the price we paid, manpower-wise, to take that island.”